So much in our lives, both professional and personal, lies outside our control. Focusing on the professional, most lawyers will never be fortunate enough to be able to limit our practice to only perfect clients who march into our office carrying a perfect set of facts which, when presented to a judge and jury, are virtually guaranteed to yield an excellent outcome.
A less pessimistic view is to recognize that what makes our practice so interesting and challenging (on those occasions when it is interesting and challenging) is the fact that we are forced to take a set of imperfect facts, involving a group of imperfect actors, and turn water into wine, capitalize on the positive, downplay the negative and procure the very best result for our clients. Sometimes this means pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Given that so much is beyond our control, it would seem to me to make all the sense in the world, at least professionally, to take steps wherever we can, flex our muscles, to influence an outcome to the greatest extent possible. In the interest of progressing beyond the general to the particular, I’m referring once again to the issue of preparation.
This time, though, my focus is on preparation for settlement discussions. I’m thinking specifically about a recent settlement conference I attended in an employment discrimination case. The case was nearing trial and this settlement conference was the parties’ one last chance to talk turkey. Because this case was pending in federal district court, there had been a pretty decent interval of time, a few months, between completion of discovery and the settlement conference (in state court, by contrast, at least in California, the parties may not complete discovery until a month or less before trial). I made the assumption that because I was immersed waist-deep in writing motions in limine and formulating trial strategy, that my opponent–an older, more seasoned lawyer–was surely equally immersed and conversant in the facts and theories of the case.
Eh . . . Not so much. While we were sequestered during the first part of the conference, the judge ultimately decided to bring all the lawyers together because he figured we might make more progress debating the merits mano a mano. It then became abundantly clear that my opponent didn’t know his case. (In hindsight, I might have been tipped off to this by the fact that he had just days before served 17 motions in limine, several of which had nothing to do–literally nothing at all to do–with the facts of our case.) Worse, not only did he not know his case, he was haughty, bombastic and steadfastly indignant about the absolute, unquestionably unquestionable merit of his client’s discrimination claims, only he had no evidentiary basis to back them up. It was kind of ridiculous, really.*
What kind of message does it send for a lawyer to be out of touch with the key facts of his client’s case so close to trial? I can tell you what kind of message it doesn’t send. It doesn’t inspire fear or grave concern. It doesn’t, and didn’t, make us rush to write a check. The case did ultimately settle, but it was a “cost of defense” settlement in the purest sense. Actually, it was a-little-less-than-half-the-cost-of-defense settlement. In other words, great outcome for my client, not such a good outcome for my opponent.
In fairness, the plaintiff didn’t have a kick ass case to start with. In fact her case sucked. And we knew it. So this story might not be the most potent example of how preparation can make a difference in settlement negotiations. But it is a cautionary tale, because counsel was so out of touch with the facts that, even if his client had had a really good case, we still wouldn’t have paid much. His lack of preparedness made his client’s case weak, regardless of the facts or evidence.
*For example: the plaintiff’s employment was governed by a collective bargaining agreement. This was no secret. The agreement had been produced and referenced repeatedly in discovery, and the fact that plaintiff’s employment was so governed constituted a major component of our defense. When given his turn during the joint session of the settlement conference to articulate his client’s position, however, almost the first words out of my opponent’s mouth was a suggestion that “this was the first he’d ever heard” about any collective bargaining agreement. Just ridiculous.